Sunday, May 15, 2016

Loose Leashes and Unicycles

Teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash is like learning to ride a unicycle. Some dog-handler teams get it really fast, for some it's a lengthy and frustrating process. Some dogs never get there, and some handlers choose not to spend their training time on it at all.
loose leash walking
Photo by Erin Koski

I recently was part of an online discussion about no-pull harnesses in which someone repeatedly dismissed the entire concept in favor of "just training your dog". While training is my favorite solution for teaching loose leash walking, I readily recognize the value of training tools in this process. I also value harnesses in general for their ability to prevent injury and escape.

This particular contributor to the discussion proudly stated that they had trained their border collies to walk in heel position at all times, and therefore everyone else should do the same. Some of us mentioned our veterinarians' advice to use a harness for health reasons. The Heel Nazi insisted that such measures were unnecessary, we should just train our dogs. Some of us said our dogs were fearful or prone to escaping. The Heel Nazi insisted that training would prevent our dogs from ever attempting to bolt. Some of us mentioned working with dogs that could physically overpower us. The Heel Nazi said we just needed to train our dogs.
Photo by David R. Tribble

I think loose leash walking is a lot like learning to ride a unicycle. Some people have good balance or easy dogs and pick it up quickly. Some people have non-optimal circumstances and must work very hard to achieve it. Some need training wheels to get started, and some will never take them off. Some people never feel the need to take them off, others keep them on for safety reasons. Some master the skill only in select environments, others can do it everywhere.

Teaching loose leash walking is not easy for most people, just like learning to ride a unicycle is not easy for most people. Yes, in a perfect world every dog would be able to maintain a loose leash in the face of squirrels, strange dogs, and car accidents happening on the street right in front of them (this is my favorite example of a random unpredictable emergency situation that is difficult to proof). However, we live in an imperfect world where some dogs are poorly-bred or poorly-socialized, and some people are small, weak, or suffer compromised health. 

Teaching loose leash walking takes time, it's a process. So is learning to ride a unicycle. I can't imagine saying "You shouldn't need to wear a helmet, just learn to ride the unicycle and it will be unnecessary." Likewise, I wouldn't say "You shouldn't need to use a harness to protect your toy breed's trachea, just teach him to heel at all times and it will be unnecessary." There's probably lots of other dog training unicycles, so I try to avoid invalidating someone else's experience with "Just train X..." like it's no big deal, just because it wasn't for me and my dog.

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